Having a career in science…and what is “science” anyway?

Episode 15 of the Sympathetic People podcast, in which we discuss careers in science and ask questions about what exactly “science” is anyway.

It’s undeniably a problem that scientific research is underfunded. PhD students represent cheap labour for laboratories and universities, but how many of them can find a job when they complete their degrees? How many young researchers ever achieve job security? How does science stack up against other career paths in these regards?

Another core issue we discuss is what “science” really is. Many people seem to believe that science is fundamentally different from the arts and humanities, but “science” is just an outgrowth of empiricism. Empiricism is a branch of epistemology and epistemology is a branch of philosophy – science isn’t clearly separable from philosophy, it’s part of it! Not only this, but differences between the sciences and the arts, or between science and ancient traditions of myth-making and storytelling are greatly exaggerated.

Enjoy, subscribe, like (if you do), and please comment below with your thoughts!

Ouroborus painting by Genevieve Jackson.

What it’s like to be a philosopher

A: I’ve been thinking about your definition of consciousness. You said it was an “affordance-seeking predictive engine”, which really wasn’t very helpful.

B: Sorry…

A: All good, you did say a bunch of other stuff that was interesting…

B: I do try my best.

A: Well, that’s all I ask. Aaaaaaanyway, I was listening to a podcast about consciousness and the host discussed another definition. I’m sure you probably heard before, but it seemed intuitively correct to me, so I’m wondering if you have any comments.

B: Fire away.

A: OK, so they said that consciousness is just “what it’s like to be something”. Like, what it’s like to be me is my consciousness, what it’s like to be….

B: A bat?

A: Yeah, they did use that example. They credited it to some philosopher.

B: Thomas Nagel. But really I think it’s just an extension of Descartes

A: Slow down…

B: Sorry. Nagel wrote a famous and influential essay called “What is it like to be a bat?”. He argued that if it is like something to be something, meaning that something has subjective states, then that something is conscious.

A: Stop saying “something” – what is the relevance of bats?

B: Nagel thought that they were an interesting example because they perceive the world with different senses from us.

A: Ah, like echolocation.

B: Yep – he thought that thinking about the difference between the way a bat perceives a moth with echolocation and the way we do with our eyes would make the difference between the subjective and the objective clear.

A: Right – the moth is objective but our perceptions of it are subjective.

B: That’s the idea. And I agree, it seems intuitive and innocent enough.

A: But?

B: But….well, there are multiple “buts” actually.

A: Are they big?

B: What?

A: Are these big butts? I hope so, I cannot lie…

B: Grow up. Philosophy is serious business.

A: No wonder it’s so tedious. OK OK, go on.

B: It’s not uncommon to hear people that like this definition add that consciousness is also the one thing we can really “Know” (with a capital K, mind you) exists.

A: Actually yeah, that’s exactly what they said….

B: Well it’s part of Nagel’s thesis, which is basically Subjectivism – the only thing we can really know is our own subjective experience. And that is really just a step from Solipsism – “the only thing that exists is my own consciousness”. And this argument about “what it’s like” is also tied up with the idea that consciousness is immaterial, a “mental phenomenon”, that can’t be reduced to a scientific, physical theory. There’s so much philosophical baggage here I hardly know where to start.

A: Well I don’t think all that applies here really, the guy I heard this from is very scientific, he doesn’t even believe in free will….

B: Uh oh, he’s almost certainly a closet dualist in that case. That line of reasoning, even though it might not be explicit, goes something like: “the physical universe is a closed causal system, but our conscious thoughts, or our awareness of them, are clearly mental, thus not physical. We don’t know how the mental could possibly interact with the physical, therefore our thoughts are acausal and we don’t have free will, QED.” A lot of this goes back to Descartes and problems with his thesis.

A: That’s the second time you’ve mentioned him.

B: Well, he has a lot to answer for! Probably his most famous claim, maybe the most famous claim in all of Western Philosophy, is “cogito ergo sum” – I think, therefore I am. I’ve always liked to parody this as “cogito ergo inconditus” – I think, therefore I am confused.

A: Ha. I see that philosophy doesn’t ban humour altogether, it’s just that philosophers aren’t very good at it.

B: Anyway. Descartes’ philosophy was deeply dualistic – he divided the world into “res cogitans”, mental stuff, and “res extensa”, physical stuff. That’s not exactly unique in itself of course because the majority of people in 17th Century Europe were dualists, and he was just formalising that in his own way. There were other options available to him, mind you, there have been many monist philosophers throughout history in both the West and the East, and even Descartes’ correspondent, the Princess….

A: Is this turning into a history lesson or what?

B: Sorry. His claim “cogito ergo sum” was the end result of his experiment with skepticism – he wanted to discover if he had any certain knowledge that he could ground the rest of his philosophy on, and he came up with this Matrix-style thought experiment…

A: Hey cool, the Matrix is cool!

B: Yeah, but not very original…

A: Hold up. You’re telling me Descartes thought about dodging bullets, jumping from building to building and learning martial arts from a computer?

B: No.

A: Soooooo the Matrix is original!

B: My mistake. What Descartes imagined was that there might be an evil demon systematically deceiving his senses. Maybe the world he thought he was perceiving didn’t exist at all, but was just one big deception.

A: That is kinda like the Matrix…

B: And he therefore concluded that the only thing he could really know was that he was perceiving something, but that he couldn’t know what that something really was. So his only certainty was the fact of his consciousness itself. He later decided he was certain that God existed and a bunch of other stuff, but you get the gist.

A: Ah. So what’s wrong with “I think, therefore I am” exactly?

B: Well, we might start by inverting it – “I am, therefore I think”. What Descartes is trying to establish is something fundamental, something given, a foundation from which reasoning can begin. But his choice is arbitrary and egocentric really. He implies that the world is in his head, but he could just as easily have concluded that his head was in the world.

A: Eh?

B: He might have said that the only thing he could be certain of was that there is a world. He might be deceived about that world – maybe it’s just him and the evil demon hanging out in the void and all the rest is illusory, but nonetheless there is a world and he is in it.

A: I’m not convinced that makes much difference.

B: It’s subtle, but it’s like Chaos theory – extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. This very subtle difference in the choice of foundations for a system of philosophy can have a profound impact on the conclusions reached “higher up” the chain of reasoning. Ultimately it’s not surprising Descartes went the way he did because he believed in an immortal soul that was separate from the physical world. He was begging the question – his choice of “foundations” was really constrained by his higher level beliefs from the get go and his exercise in skepticism was purely a technical exhibition.

A: Uh huh. It still makes intuitive sense to me though.

B: Well of course, yeah – it does to most Westerners, which is what I mean by “philosophical baggage”. Our dominant philosophical heritage is dualism, and Descartes himself is a big part of that – his ideas make sense to you because you were raised in a philosophical tradition influenced by his ideas (and the ideas that influenced his ideas).

A: If you say so. I’m not sure you’ve successfully linked this to the “what it’s like” definition yet.

B: That definition comes directly out of this dualist tradition. It is an earlier version of the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, the question of why we have any subjective experience at all….

A: That problem sounds hard, let’s deal with one at a time please.

B: It’s the same problem really, but OK, aside from prompting us to do silly things like imagining the subjective experience of a bat from inside the subjective experience of a human (which is allegedly all we can know, remember), the issue is that it privileges subjective experience in the first place. Nagel does a switcheroo when he substitutes “what it’s like to be a bat” for “what a moth is like for a bat”. Like the “hard problem”, this presupposes that there is some core kernel of subjectivity, of consciousness, that is distinct from the contents of consciousness, and this connects with Descartes’ claim that it is this thing, this core kernel, that is the only thing we can be sure of, since can be fooled about any of the contents of consciousness. But the thing is, the claim that there is any consciousness without contents is simply assumed!

A: Hmmmmmmmmm. You seem a bit excited about this.

B: You asked – I don’t like the “what it’s like” definition because it’s the same as the hard problem, which is a pseudo-problem that ultimately derives from a Cartesian split of the world into the mental and the physical. I admit that at the level of the definition itself this might not seem obvious, but I think it can lead to a lot of sloppy thinking further down the line.

A: Well, I like it and I think you philosophers get your knickers in a twist about silly things, which is why people prefer watching cute cat videos on Youtube to studying philosophy……check this one out, for example.

B: Pass.

Rational altruism and selfish selflessness.

A: I saw an interesting lecture on the YouTube recently…

B: You’re watching lectures on there now? I thought you were mostly into cat videos?

A: The cat videos are getting old…… I have this weird desire to learn stuff now.

B: Careful, that can become addictive.

A: Anyway, the guy was saying that altruism isn’t rational, that really just exploiting others and trying to take everything for yourself is rational. He said that’s why we need religious frameworks to make us ethical people and we can’t just rely on rational arguments. Not that we have to actually be religious now, but we wouldn’t have been moral in the first place without religion and our current sense of morality comes from the fact that we live in a society with a religious underpinning. What do you think about that?

B: Well, it’s true we live in a society that has been shaped by religion. That’s true of all human societies. It’s also true that culture provides a framework for our value judgements, including those in the ethical or moral dimension. That’s definitely one of the most important functions of society. However, it’s not true that morals, ethics and altruism began with religion and it’s certainly not true that a superficial “every man for himself” approach to life is the most “rational” approach to take. So, whilst “the YouTube guy” made some good points, his thesis that altruism isn’t rational, which seems like a fundamental claim here, is false.

A: I knew you’d disagree. You disagree with everything.

B: No, I don’t…

A: I rest my case.

B: Ha. What I actually do is I criticise everything – that’s how I learn.

A: Uh huh. Righto then, criticise away.

B: Don’t mind if I do! For starters, we know that plenty of non-human animals can be altruistic, particularly social species. There are plenty of examples amongst mammals, but even social insects can be thought of as altruistic – think of a bee sacrificing itself for the protection of the hive. Bees don’t have religion and neither do monkeys grooming each other, warning each other with alarm calls, or forgoing food rewards, even starving themselves, to prevent other monkeys receiving electric shocks. Altruism is common in pre-linguistic animals….

A: Why?

B: I’m getting there. With the bees it’s fairly simple – it’s kin selection. The only way the genes carried by an infertile worker bee can get passed on, can be replicated, is through the queen. The queen’s fate is the fate of the hive, so the worker will sacrifice itself to safeguard that fate, to increase the chances of its genes being replicated. Maybe this is where altruism, and ultimately morality, begins – ethics and morality are social phenomena and the first social groups were groups of related individuals.

A: Sure, that makes sense, but it goes way beyond that with humans. We don’t just look out for our family members, we sometimes make extraordinary sacrifices for total strangers.

B: We do indeed, and it’s not only humans that display altruistic behaviour towards unrelated individuals. That sort of thing isn’t restricted to mammals either, even animals that seem completely unfeeling to us, like caimans…

A: Hold up, you forget that I’m not a biologist – what’s a caiman?

B: A type of crocodylian.

A: Like an alligator?

B: Close enough. When there are droughts and the wetlands they inhabit start to dry up, caiman mothers will lead their babies on long journeys over land to find any remaining pools of water. Sometimes there are so few pools that caimans converge on them from all over the place and they become crowded. There isn’t space for all the adult caimans, so most of them leave their babies behind to be looked after by just a few surrogate mums, like a crèche…

A: A caiman daycare centre.

B: Exactly. The mums that stay behind look after all the babies, protecting them from predators even though they are unrelated to the majority of them.

A: That seems pretty altruistic.

B: For sure, and it’s equally possible to think of those that leave, braving the drought, as the ones making the sacrifice – they seem to know their babies will be better off if they don’t compete for space with the other mothers. Anyway, it’s common for animals to make some sort of personal sacrifice for the “greater good”. There are heaps of examples amongst birds and mammals – we could spend all day discussing examples. The key thing that unites them though, and that takes things further than kin selection, is something known as “reciprocal altruism”.

A: Like “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”?

B: Pretty much. Right, let’s talk humans – we’re social, and we know that we’re descended from social ancestors. Our closest surviving relatives, the chimps and bonobos, are highly social. So are the majority of primates. In these sorts of social groups reciprocal altruism is common, whether it is manifested in grooming behaviour, babies being raised by multiple group members, political alliances, or whatever. Again, there is a huge number of examples, but let’s stick to humans.

A: Yes, let’s do that – there’s only so long I can resist the urge to check my Twitter feed.

B: Until only 12,000 years or so ago, humans were all hunter-gatherers. Back in those days, groups really had to stick together – group members had to look out for each other. Hunting and gathering are capricious, especially hunting. Some days, some weeks, you just can’t catch a break; every game animal you see is one step ahead of you; your spear finds only air. During these lean times, when the gods of the hunt have turned their backs on you….

A: Now you’re being silly.

B: Not at all. The point is that if you weren’t having any luck hunting, but other members of your group were, then you’d better hope they were feeling well-disposed toward you. If you’d been a jerk, stealing their furs, turning them away from the warmth of your fire, playing your bone flute at all hours of the night, they probably wouldn’t feel like sharing their meat with you. Incidentally, this is probably why polygamy was rare prior to the advent of agriculture – group cohesion had to be maintained by the sharing of resources.

A: Interesting point. Does that suggest that when guys say it’s “only natural” for them to want multiple women that is just a bad excuse for bad behaviour?

B: Um, let’s not go there right now. It does, however, remind me of an important point: ultimately what behaviour counts as ethical and what counts as rational is context-dependent. That context can be pretty broad, like the context of being human, or it can be narrow, depending on what sort of behaviour we’re discussing. It doesn’t necessarily matter what is “natural” – if you’ve agreed to be faithful and you are unfaithful, that is unethical. Being an arsehole might be totally “natural”, but it’s still being an arsehole. Anyway, back to the hunter-gatherers. It’s easy to see that in that context refusing to help your neighbour when they are in need, adopting a superficial “every man for himself” attitude, would not be at all rational. It would be a surefire way of convincing others not to help you when the shoe is on the other foot. So, altruism is perfectly rational in that context.

A: Does that mean you think religion is totally irrelevant?

B: I didn’t say that, but it’s not where morals originate and it’s not something we require because the supposed “purely rational” alternative is being completely immoral. There are other issues with pure rationalism, but that’s for another day. Religions, anyway, are more like descriptions or codifications of morals than ultimate sources of them. They are one way, perhaps the most potent way for much of human history, of providing a framework that can stabilise morality….which is not always a good thing, mind you. Today, partly thanks to religion, but also due to our deep evolutionary history, we live in societies full of ethical and moral norms – checks and balances. Certain kinds of unethical behaviour are severely punished with everything from loss of reputation and ostracism to life-imprisonment or even execution in some places. Again, this is not uniquely human – being unethical can be extremely costly for many social animals, especially amongst primates, none of which have complex language and therefore lack detailed codifications of morality such as religions. In any social system in which there can be punishment for ethical transgression along with rewards for generosity, either direct or indirect, immediate or across longer time periods, altruism is rational.

A: I guess that makes sense. It kinda makes you think about our definition of “altruism” though doesn’t it? I mean, if being altruistic is good for you, it doesn’t really seem like altruism, it seems almost selfish…

B: Exactly. Altruism is selfish. Everyone from Buddha to Ayn Rand knows that.

A: Buddha and Ayn Rand? I don’t see the connection. Ayn Rand is evil.

B: Rand is a victim of her own clever use of language, a bit like Richard Dawkins. Did you know he has claimed he could just as easily have named “The Selfish Gene” “The Altruistic Gene”?

A: No, and I must say this is all deeply counterintuitive – altruism and selfishness are meant to be opposites!

B: Language games are fun, aren’t they? But sometimes being too clever, or perhaps using a buzzword like “selfish” to increase the exposure of your ideas, invites misinterpretation. A big part Dawkins’ book is about reciprocal altruism and how it evolves not really in spite of, but actually because of the “selfishness” of our genes – in evolution, selfishness leads to altruism, secondary to the evolution of sociality. Rand had a similar idea in mind when she claimed that if people really understood what was best for them, thus what was maximally “selfish” behaviour, they would see that it meant doing what was best for those around them as well – maximally selfish behaviour leads to altruism. Why? Because we are social organisms, dependent on those around us in so many ways.

A: Every man for himself equals every man for each other?

B: Yep! A lovely evolutionary paradox. A snake biting its own tail. The ouroborus strikes again.

A: You and your bloody ouroborus, you have snakes on the brain. How does Buddha fit in?

B: Well, compassion for all sentient beings is very central in Buddhism. But it’s made quite clear that this is for soteriological reasons….

A: Sauté-what now?

B: Soteriological. Reasons concerning personal salvation. Meditating on compassion, on universal, unconditional loving kindness, is a core part of the Buddhist path towards enlightenment, towards freedom from suffering. The idea is that we suffer less when we are more compassionate. Interestingly, recent brain-imaging studies suggest that this compassionate meditation, amongst all the various Buddhist mind-training techniques, is the one most strongly associated with the reduction of personal suffering – with happiness, with joy.

A: So being compassionate is selfish.

B: Bingo. It’s the best way to reduce your own suffering. Being maximally compassionate towards others is the best thing you can do for yourself, or so the claim goes – maximal altruism is maximal selfishness. It’s just a matter of really understanding what’s best for yourself.

A: Which is not necessarily easy to know.

B: True, but you can’t use that ignorance to claim that exploiting others is rational. That’s an oxymoron – ignorance cannot be rational, even if sometimes it might be blissful. So, as far as I’m concerned, enlightened selfishness is altruism and that’s as rational as it gets. Make sense?

A: Sorry what? I was distracted…..have you seen what Trump just tweeted?

Permanent Evolution Podcast Episode 2

Episode two of the Permanent Evolution Podcast.

Part 1 – Morals and the Louis C.K. case study; are we becoming more moral? is there progress in history?

Part 2 – Cultural evolution continued; can a complex world view be coherent?

Part 3 – Is reality coherent? Is “evolution” just another catch-all metaphor?

NB.

When Joha says “immoral”, it sometimes sounds like he’s saying “moral”……

Teleology is “goal-directed by knowledge”, as opposed to teleonomy – “goal-directed by law”.

All music and field-recordings/soundscapes by Tim.

Painting by Genevieve Jackson.